Eike Luedeling

A growing body of evidence strongly suggests that climate change will impact food production and food security. Many recent studies, which combined the best knowledge about our crops and our planet’s future climate, have raised serious reasons for concern. Whether past changes in food production can be attributed to climate change is a contentious issue, but the future will almost certainly see negative effects of climate change on food production.

It is not surprising that such projections are not particularly welcomed by farmers or other actors within the global food system. Yet ignoring or rejecting these studies is probably not a wise course because of one major assumption contained in the majority of climate change projections: “We don’t change the way we do business.” In other words, most future projections are only valid if we don’t take action to mitigate climate change impacts. In many situations, it may be well within our power to make sure that this assumption is wrong.

But how can we adapt, if we don’t know exactly what the future climate will look like? Many different climate models, run under a wide range of assumptions about greenhouse gas emission trajectories, have produced very different projections. And for the planning horizon of most food production operations, between one and 10 years, climate projections are most uncertain. The challenge is to do the right things in spite of this uncertainty.

For growers of annual crops, the best near-term adaptation strategies may be those that increase their resilience to climate variability, such as mixed cropping systems and weather insurance products. In many cases, the introduction of agroforestry practices can also mitigate the effects of climate variability, and even mitigate climate change itself by sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. For longer-term adaptation, climate analogue analysis can provide examples of sustainable food production systems in a warmer future. This approach assumes that for most places and for most climate projections we can find another place that has a comparable climate today. Practices currently applied there may be suitable adaptation strategies for the place of interest.

Science can also help with adaptation by breeding for appropriate crop attributes for projected conditions or by developing innovative cropping systems and management practices. Wherever farmers feel like their knowledge base and the range of farming options available to them are insufficient for effective adaptation, they should press the scientific community to help develop solutions.

Not for all farming operations do planning horizons fall into the maximum-uncertainty window. Growers of fruit trees, for example, make decisions now that will impact their economic bottom lines for decades. Trees that are planted in today’s climate will likely experience different conditions during their most productive years. Together with some colleagues, I recently published a global projection of winter chill for temperate fruit trees for a range of climate change projections (http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0020155). Without fulfillment of cultivar-specific winter chilling requirements, many fruit trees do not produce economically adequate yields. Recent and projected warming reduces winter chill in many places, particularly in warm growing regions, making trees increasingly unlikely to meet their requirements. Choosing appropriate trees now could ensure future production, but climate change adaptation is not on most growers’ agenda. Developing science-based solutions to insufficient chilling deserves immediate attention because breeding new cultivars can take decades, and knowledge about the genetics and physiology behind the process is very limited. Besides orchard operations, most elements of the food system beyond the farm, such as processors and distributors of food, also have planning horizons that require changes to farming systems. For risk reduction on their part, they should work with farmers and scientists to identify and develop long-term adaptation strategies.

Climate change will affect some actors in the food system more than others. Those who simply react to or suffer from the impact of climate change are likely among the losers; those who take appropriate measures to adapt will be the winners—or at least the survivors—of climate change.

Development of strategies for the future must start now. Waiting for the time when climate projections are unambiguous is not helpful because that time may never come, and waiting wastes valuable time that could be used to develop best-bet adaptation strategies. For a smooth transition into a warmer future and minimal disruption to global food system and food business economics, climate change adaptation must be treated with the necessary urgency. Taking appropriate action now may keep climate change impacts manageable. Only if we postpone the development of new strategies until climate change is fully upon us will the dire projections by recent climate-impact projections become reality.


Eike Luedeling, Ph.D., is Climate Change Scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in Nairobi, Kenya ([email protected]).